Sometime in the late fall 2020, I crossed a milestone that seems worth reflecting on. I don’t remember the month anymore because it’s been too long, but sometime in late fall 2020 I entered my 20th year of continuous Ashtanga practice. And, what came to my mind was some advice I heard years ago from Tim Miller, via one of his students: Think of your practice in terms of decades.
Tim found decades to be about the right scale at which to look back and reflect on our practice. I agree with Tim. Decades feels like just about the right time scale to me too.
When we initially arrive at our first Ashtanga class, we all tend to identify Ashtanga as what we can see on the surface: the postures. I was no different. But, if you stay with it, and look and listen closely, there is the possibility that you will see so much more. In the way that you might take the tools of woodworking and saw, trim, carve, sand, stain, and polish to release something that would have otherwise gone unseen and unappreciated from what started as a just log — we can use the postures, the breath, and our cultivated skill of concentration to release our best selves from our day to day mundane selves. That is the process of yoga: the slow alchemy that occurs when we use those tools we have to bring awareness to what was already there.
As the years go by, my understanding of the subtle ways that we can use the practice continues to deepen. Almost 15 years ago now I did an intensive study for about a year and a half with Beryl Bender Birch, one of the early westerners to learn and then teach the Ashtanga practice. At the time I met Beryl she had been teaching the practice for around 30 years. She was well acquainted with the different ways that we could use the practice and the different qualities we could practice with. In her confident New Yorker voice, I can still hear her say to the group: “This is not a stretch class. You want a stretch class? Then go find a stretch class.” And also, “This is not your workout. If you didn’t get enough exercise, go for a run.”
It wasn’t that Beryl didn’t recognize or work with the physical health and wellness benefits of the practice — she did and still does, in spades. Her words though, were pointing at a recognition that the Ashtanga practice was far more than that, and she was steering us to look closer.
So, if the Ashtanga practice is not actually about stretching per se, and it’s not actually a workout, what is it?
It’s an embodied set of practices, tools if you will, that we can use to adjust the state of our nervous system. Through the work with embodied practice of movement, breathing, and concentration, we have the opportunity to realize in a visceral way the truly interconnected nature of our own experience, which we might otherwise think of as separate: body, mind, and heart.
Ten years ago I wrote a blog post looking back on my first ten years of practice. And, in the first ten years, it was that which I was becoming aware of. The indistinguishable connection between body, mind, and breath was coming into clearer focus for me — that I was never engaging with one without the others.
Over the next ten years all the tools of practice have continued to do their work. And, if there is one thing that stands out, it is that personal transformation doesn’t end with me. We are all one interconnected nervous system of humans.
From that place of recognizing our own wholeness, we have the opportunity to recognize the interconnected nature of our own soul with others. And that just might change something about how we operate as we go about in the world.
I still do a physically challenging practice, although I hold that lightly and let it go when it makes sense to do so. What moved in my practice that has been transformative in my life is not the postures. They were always only the tools. Postures are inert. They have no self-existent qualities until we pick them up and do them. What continued to move is why and how I do them — and that is with a great amount of love, care, and tenderness. Because, it’s only when I can care for myself in that way that I can extend that to others.
Over the first ten years of practice, it moved from my body to my mind.
Over the second ten years of practice, it moved from my mind to my heart.
If I could encourage those of you in the earlier years of practice to lean more towards a few things it would be these: slow down, cultivate patience, take the perspective that you’re on the long road, look more closely at what is present in each moment, savor each moment, and practice with heart.
Who we are on the mat is also who we are in life. But, the mat has always provided the safe space to explore who I want that to be. There is infinite exploration in that space regardless of which postures you’re doing. The individual postures that you do matter so much less than the qualities that you do them with.
That’s maybe a lot to arise from “jumping around on the mat” as my teacher lightly refers to it, but for sure the practice never stops leading to interesting places. I look forward to what the next decade of practice will bring.